Monday, October 18, 2010

The Complete Night Stalker, Part Four

"Kolchak: The Night Stalker" is a show that many people my age think fondly of, half-remembering episodes that scared the bejeezus out of us as kids. Viewing the entire series as an adult, I found that there were many episodes that warrant those warm feelings. However, as I continue my survey of all 20 episodes in the series as part of the 31 Nights of Halloween, I it is clear that today's batch represent the series at its height.

If the majority of the show had been as good as Episodes Thirteen through Sixteen, and if ABC and Universal  Television executives had dealt more fairly with star Darrin McGavin (instead of reneging on promises of creative control and co-producer status of the series), maybe it would have earned a second season.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker
(The Complete Television Series Reviewed, Part Four)

Episode Thirteen: Primal Scream
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Director: Robert Scheerer

A trail of brutal dismemberment murders that start at a research lab analyzing core samples retrieved from the North Pole brings Kolchak face-to-face with savage man-apes that have spontenously regenerated from thawed-out cells.

This episode is pure scientific nonsense of 1950s monster-movie variety. In think even in the 50s, audiences would have rolled their eyes at the notion of life-forms as complicated as a meat-eating primate regenerating from a few single cells. What makes this episode fun is Carl's interaction with the incidental characters and the supporting cast back at the INS office. Ron in particular gets to shine in this episode.

The monster here is lame, and Carl's heedless pursuit of a creature that is so plainly dangerous to whomever it comes across is pure idiocy (even by Kolchak Standards) but the non-monster related interaction definately saves this episode.

Episode Fourteen: The Trevi Collection
Rating: Nine of Ten Stars
Director: Don Weis

Before a source can give Carl a promised scoop, the source is murdered. As Carl investigates, he uncovers disturbing facts about the House of Trevi, a ritzy fashion design studio: The lady it's named after is witch, and deadly curses are being tossed left, right, and center... at anyone who seems to threaten the supremecy of Trevi. And that includes Our Man Carl.

This is one of my very favorite episodes, despite the somewhat dubious way Carl is drawn into the situation. I love the way the story's many twists and the way Carl's gung-ho monster-hunting attitude (where he blazes ahead without having all his facts straight) ends up making the situation far more deadly. A subplot about mobsters chasing Carl for information also adds a lot to this episode.

The episode is also enlivened by a guest appearance by Lara Parker as the fashion designing witch who will let nothing stand between her and success. She is so good that I may down the "Dark Shadows" movies she starred in.

Episode Fourteen: Chopper
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
Director: Bruce Kessler

Aging, former members of an outlaw biker gang are being murdered, all decapitated by an impossibly strong killer. Kolchak investigates, and then he becomes the next target of a headless ghost biker who has come back from the dead for revenge.

This is one of the great "Night Stalker" episodes. There's plenty of horror and plenty of laughs in this excellently written episode. The tension remains high until the very moment--there hasn't been such a strong sense of danger for Kolchak since "The Zombie".

This could have been a Ten-Star episode if not for the absolute laziness with which the headless biker was created. I realize it was the 70s, they didn't have the sort of computer effects we have today, and television budgets and shooting schedules were tight, but there MUST have been a better way to do the biker ghost than just have a stunt driver pull his jacket over his head. In life, the biker just have been known as "Johnny Long Torso" because his chest is about one-head length too big.

This bit of shoddiness undermines what could have been a truly great episode.

Episode Fifteen: Demon in Lace
Rating: Six of Ten Stars
Director: Don Weis

Young men are being frightened to death on a college campus. Kolchak traces the cause back to an ancient tablet and the demon who dwells within it. Will anyone believe that a priceless historical treasure must be destroyed before any more lives are lost?

This is a solid, middle-of-the-road episode. The story is okay and well thought out--it even provides a reason for why Carl isn't fired and/or locked up for good at the end--and there's a nice balance of humor and horror as a frustrated Kolchak battles not only the police and college campus bureacrats, but also has to contend with a journalism student who shares many of his worst personality traits. It's funny to see Carl get a dose of his own medicine.

Episode Sixteen: Legacy of Terror
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Director: Don McDougall

Someone armed with a dull blade has been cutting out the hearts of physically-perfect men and women, killing each victim is found on a higher and higher prime numbered flight of stairs. Kolchak's investigation puts him at odds with bizarre Aztec cult seeking to revive their mummified god at the correct celestial alignment. To prevent the mummy's resurrection, Kolchak must prevent the sacrifice of their fifth, "perfect" victim on the highest flight of stairs in Chicago.

This is one of the better episodes as it features a high creepiness factor, high humor factor, and there's a strong sense that Kolchak may be in over his head during the climax, but the lengths to which the writers go to make their story believable (by filling the viewer in on details regarding Aztec mythology) sometimes gives it a feeling of a doctoral thesis gone waaaay of the rails. Still, it's an etertaining, fast-paced, and exciting episode. The cult/conspiracy angle it takes also strengthens it immensely; the supernatural monster doesn't appear until the very end.

(Speaking of the monster, the final shot of the mummy shows its eyes flicker a bit. I'm not sure if that's sloppy editing or intentional, but it was certainly startling, since Carl was certain he'd prevented the gods resurrection... at least until the stars align again.)

Please join me again next week, as I finish the trip through all 20 episodes of "Kolchak: The Night Stalker", just in time for the monster explosion that is Halloween!


  1. Nice! I was waiting for your review of The Trevi Collection. That one is my absolute favorite. Lara Parker was pretty amazing in it, and I too thought about tracking down DARK SHADOWS as well, just to see her in something else horror-related. Overall it was a fun episode and there were times that it looked like McGavin was trying to keep from laughing towards the end.

  2. I love this show. Even when it was bad, it had a funky charm that the SyFy remake totally lacked. And Dareen McGavin was always wonderful.

    Lara Parker is terrific. She's only in the second "Dark Shadows" movie ("Night Of Dark Shadows.") not the first, though she's a big character in the soap opera. She's also in "Race With the Devil" (1975) in which she co-stars with Peter Fonda, Loretta Swit, and Warren Oates. It's a sort of road movie about two vacationing couples being chased and harrassed by Satanists. I've never been able to understand why she didn't show up in more films.

  3. Aaron: Watching the shows, it's impossible to tell that McGavin got bitter about the whole experience very early in the process. He seems to be having a good time throughout, and he clearly gave the show everything he could. Although those scenes you point to, and others, make me wish for an outtake reel... some of them feel like they barely managed to get the scene shot before the actors cracked up.

    Jack: Thanks for the tips, and I agree about the remake. Few shows were more deserving of swift cancellation than that one.

    (And on Lara Parker, I may have to feature her as one of my Saturday Scream Queens, just so I can justify spending the time trying to figure out why she didn't appear in more movies. :) )